The illustration above shows the third of four alcoves from the Masjed-e-Hakim three of which carry the names of Muhammad's daughter, Fatima and her children and grandchildren, who are revered in Shi'ism as leaders or imams. This one contains the names of Muhammad Al-Jawad, 'Ali Al-Hadi, Hasan Al-Askari and Muhammad Al-Mehdi the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Imams, respectively.
The most important principle of Shi'ism is that of the Imamate by which is meant the representation of divine authority on earth by a spiritual leader. Form most of this century this imam or leader has been in 'occultation' in the person of Muhammad Al-Mehdi, but he is able to speak through chosen agents, and to make pronouncements in respect to the religious laws. The Sunnis have Imams, but only four of them, and they are the founders of the four great schools of Islam, two of which are of especialy importance in the history if Islamic Architecture in Isfahan, Abu Hanifa and Al-Shafi'i, the founders of the Hanifte and Shafi'ite schools of law respectively, whose opponents frequently clashed bitterly and with destructive effects, for example the burning down of a significant portion of the Masjed-e-Jomeh.
The Shi'ites believe in a form of divine right to succession which has been accorded to the family of Muhammad, as delineated in the inscriptions at the head of these pages, while the Sunni's prefer the doctrine of a more secular ruler in the form of the Caliphate, who is chosen by the suffrage of the Muslim community.A recent upsurge of interest in this view is evidenced by the rise of the new Hesb-e-Taher as a force in Muslim politics. The Imam's authority is largely in the realm of canon law while that of the Caliph is purely secular. This veneration of the religious infallibility of the Shi'ite imams led to forms of extremism, most notably from our point of view, the Ismailis, who accorded the first seven Imams a quasi divine status and were prepared to resort to assassination and terrorism in furtherance of their beliefs.
An important distinction relates to marriage. The Shi'ites believe in a kind of fixed term marriage which in Persian is called Sigeh, and in Arabic Mu'ta. for the Shi'ites the autority for this rests on verse 24 of the fourth sura of the Quran which under the Shi'ite interpretation permits this form of marriage but which has a completely different meaning to the Sunnis for whom this form of marriage was outlawed by the Caliph Omar. There is also controversy surrounding verse 28 of the same sura, which is one of the abrogated verses. Another important practice relates to taqiyya, or the practise of equivocation, under which Shi'ites are permitted and even obliged to deny the truth under circumstances in which they find themselves in personal danger or in danger of compromising their religion. This obligation arose during the early period of persecution.
From an architectural point of view, the importance of visiting the graves and shrines of the descendants of Muhammad, ziyarah, of which there are some 1500, and which is specific to Shi'ite Islam, has had a tremendous impact with the sponsoring of such tombs as acts of piety of political manouveuring doing much to enhance the architectural heritage of cities such as Isfahan, which boasts many such shrines. Under Shi'ite tradition one is even able to make the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca by proxy.

Last Updated: 17 April 2001